Numbers 31: In which Moses provides inspiration for Boko Haram. @bycommonconsent
The story coming out of Nigeria about the abduction of school girls by Boko Haram and their possible forced marriages is sickening. I find myself thinking about it a lot, the terrible empathy I feel for their parents almost paralysing. I also feel anger at these religious thugs. It’s barely believable that there are people in 2014 who would do such a thing. It is evil.
About this time of year in the LDS Sunday School curriculum, Mormons are reading about the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers. The student manual summarises the end of the story thus:
The Israelites destroy the Midianites and slay Balaam. Moses explains that Balaam had counseled the Midianites to entice the Israelites into sin.
This is a fairly benign rendering of a grotesque story. Let us parse some words.
“Destroy” here means utterly annihilate. They “killed every man . . . captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder . . . burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps” (Numbers 31: 7-10). Moses was furious, not because the Israelites had committed so heinous a crime but because they had spared the women, so he ordered every woman killed except “every girl who has never slept with a man” (v.18), presumably including female babies. These were to be married off to Israelite men. What was the crime these women had committed? The manual suggests that they had “entice[d] the Israelites into sin,” referring, among other things, to the sexual encounters between Israelite men and foreign women in Numbers 25. The evil of enticing women!
The lesson skirts around this story, instead concentrating on Balaam’s failure to obey God, contrasted with Moses’ faithfulness. This faithfulness, if we bother to read all of Numbers 31, included genocide and the enslavement of girls. I cannot help but think of the terrible fate of those girls in the Nigerian jungle whose tormentors seem to be following in the footsteps of Moses, who no doubt felt that Midianite ways — especially when they produced “enticing” women — were “haram” and therefore deserving of violent judgement.
One cannot responsibly use such horrors in a lesson designed to teach the importance of obeying God. Certainly you cannot do it and have any moral credibility to denounce Boko Haram. This is not to draw an equivalence between the gentle souls in a Sunday School class who fail to honestly confront the terror texts of the Old Testament and the Boko Haram thugs, but it is a call for believers to fully and unequivocally distance themselves from any invocation of the name of God in stories that support murder and abduction.
Sam Harris has criticised moderate believers for making belief in the supernatural socially acceptable, which in turn allows fanatics to take that belief and turn it to evil ends. I am not willing to sacrifice my own beliefs on Harris’s new atheist altar but I will grant him this: churches must not give the terror texts room to breathe, for in doing so we give them moral credibility. We who do not mimic Moses’ violence in our religious lives have a responsibility to make them rhetorically anathema. Certainly no religious curriculum should blithely use the Balaam story to teach “obedience to God” when such stories and such obedience can be used for terrible ends then and now.
This is not some liberal, Milquetoast rejection of the Old Testament. On the contrary, as someone who finds the Hebrew Bible endlessly fascinating and theologically compelling, we should be better students of the Old Testament, starting with the difficult stuff. How is it that Moses can, without evident irony, remind the Hebrews in one breath not to kill (Deut 5), and in the other command his people to utterly lay waste to Canaan, sparing no man, woman, child, or animal (Deut 7)?
The fact is that both Christians and atheists often have a simplistic understanding of the biblical text. For example, tradition has it that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible — the Pentateuch. Whatever the reality of the historical Moses and his authorship of any early Hebrew history, biblical scholars, even those with religious faith, have long detected a later human hand in the Pentateuch’s composition. Deuteronomy and the conquest narratives of Joshua and Judges almost certainly belong to the so-called “Deuteronomic history,” named because of their coherence of style and intent. In short, these tales exist in large part to promote a nationalistic view of Israelite history where their claim to the land has divine approval and is thus beyond doubt.
In ancient Near Eastern cultures, the power of the gods and a nation’s claim to be favoured by them was often expressed through military power. It is no surprise, then, that the Israelite theologians wished to cast Yahweh and Israel in the same light. That they often engaged in hyperbole is proven by facts on the ground: the book of Joshua seems to suggest a genocidal annihilation of the Canaanites but it is clear from archaeology and even from later biblical books, that the Canaanites never went away. There is reason to doubt, therefore, the literalness of some of these stories. Unless you are a biblical inerrantist, this should not be a problem.
The harsh punishments meted out to Moses’ own people must also be understood in the context of Near Eastern covenant codes. Just as the king made covenants with his vassal people, so God made a covenant with Israel. The breaking of such covenants always met with a harsh response: when later Israel rebelled against Assyria, the Assyrian king unleashed his army. Similarly, those Israelites who broke their covenant with God were often subject to capital punishment, a point the text uses to highlight the seriousness of God’s relationship with his people. These are theological narratives, first and foremost.
Honest readers of the Bible are right to find these accounts morally troubling, but in this we need not think they are troubling only to our modern moral sensibilities. This is not an exercise in political correctness. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that later Israelites and Jews, whilst still heralding Moses as a national hero, were not keen on his methods. The book of Jonah is a prime example. Read beyond the account of the whale and you will see how Jonah impatiently awaits the destruction of heathen Nineveh only to be reminded by God that his love and mercy transcend national boundaries: “Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong” (Jonah 9:11). The message here seems to be that the Ninevites, because they do not know God, are also not accountable to him. This was not something which ever seemed to bother Moses and Joshua vis-à-vis the Canaanites; the Jonah narrative thus seems to be a deliberate moral counterweight to the earlier stories.
Amos and the other minor prophets preach social justice and temper the nationalistic rhetoric. Jesus — who generally expects his disciples to follow the Mosaic law — explicitly distances himself from the aspects of the old ways he cannot support: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44). Thus Jesus shows Christians how to read the Old Testament.
Christian defenders of the Old Testament need not feel that they are undermining the text by calling for a more nuanced reading of the Mosaic stories and a revision of their morals. Indeed, this is exactly the approach taken by other biblical figures who seem happy to accept a positive evolution in their national morality. The Bible accepts its own fallibility without denying God’s hand in Israelite history.
As I think about those Nigerian girls, and Moses’ own purported crimes in Midian and Moab, I am drawn to this image in 1 Peter 1:
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors . . . with the precious blood of Christ . . .; you [are now] purified . . . so that you have genuine mutual love (vv. 18-22).
The “futile ways of our ancestors” are many and include both religious violence and the failure to reject the same, even in holy writ. “Genuine mutual love” is the law by which we must abide. Not only do I wish for this to take hold in Boko Haram’s hearts but, strange as it seems, I wish it too for the Israelite soldiers who went up to Midian. Do not put the people to the sword, Moses, and leave those girls with their families where they belong. God forgive you for not doing so, and God forgive us for letting you get away with it for so long. And please, God, do something for those innocent girls in Nigeria.